ABERDEEN, MD. -- From the road, the old tanks and guns look like the detritus of war, a littered battlefield starkly outlined against the twilight sky. The artillery pieces tilt precariously on flat tires; the tanks sit immobilized on the 25-acre field.
Many of these rusting relics are the booty of war, an unlikely outdoor collection of captured weaponry that lures some 200,000 people a year from nearby Interstate 95 to the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.
These weapons could form the backdrop in a movie set, and indeed they have.
"I've got more tanks here than most armored divisions and more armored fighting vehicles than most Third World countries," said museum director William F. Atwater, a veteran of Vietnam with a doctorate in military history from Duke University.
But the museum is more than a collection of memorabilia. With the threat of war in the Persian Gulf, it has taken on a new timeliness as classes of officers and enlisted men visit to learn about the evolution of warfare and military technology.
Recently, members of the 324th Medical Unit from Pennsylvania, soon to leave for Saudi Arabia, visited the museum. They watched films of the Falkland Islands war, Atwater said. "A lot of it had to do with how to handle casualties on the battlefield. It's been a big topic lately."
The collection includes pieces from the Soviet Union, Europe, Asia and the United States. Most of the outdoor collection, 225 guns and tanks, sit on the 25-acre field. Sixty armored vehicles line the median of Maryland Avenue on the base and are known as "The Mile of Tanks." Picturesque though the scene may be, caring for these exposed weapons of war is a professional headache for Atwater.
"It's a nightmare," he said. "Everything to one degree or another is losing the battle of rust. In five years, some items will be irretrievably lost to the ravages of time."
Atwater's plan is to get many of the large military artifacts under cover, a project he estimates will cost $5 million and require the creation of a civilian, nonprofit corporation to raise the money. It would be a major step for the museum, which started in 1919 with a collection of foreign artillery.
When the collection faced budget cuts during the Vietnam War, private citizens raised $250,000 to build the structure that houses the museum's smaller weapons and exhibits, a technical library and a gift shop that sells "Go Ordnance!" caps, model tanks and guns and miniature military toys.
Also inside are a World War I staff car used by Gen. John J. Pershing and a 1916 Dodge used by Lt. George S. Patton Jr. during a raid into Mexico. There is a section devoted to the Vietnam War, including a Soviet-made chemical warfare suit worn by the North Vietnamese.
The ordnance display ranges from an 18th-century Spanish cannon made during the reign of Ferdinand VI to a 1962 Pershing nuclear warhead. Under terms of the SALT I arms treaty, the location of the Pershing warhead must be reported every six months to the Soviet Union, even though it's loaded these days only with concrete.
"It's not going to go anywhere, so I don't think the Russians have anything to fear," Atwater said.
Recent museum-goers included intelligence officials, who, Atwater said, have been asking questions about the armor and capability of tanks; war-game enthusiasts, who want to know the "penetrating ability of guns" at certain distances; and model weapons hobbyists.
On a recent weekday, visitors included a former Czechoslovakian tank corpsman who now owns an engineering firm in Middletown, N.Y., and two vacationing curators of a Finnish military museum.
Latour Lafferty, 23, had come from Florida to visit his brother, 1st Lt. William Lafferty, who lives on the base. William Lafferty's wife, Valerie, said, "We bring all our out-of-state visitors here. . . . The Smithsonian gun display is nothing like this."